PEMBERVILLE — Doug Martin was a self-described Grinch before he moved into the “chouse.”
When he and his wife, Miriam, lived in their sprawling farmhouse in Oregon, he said, “Bah, humbug,” to holiday decorating.
Then they bought the “chouse,” the former Pemberville Presbyterian Church on Ohio 105 and Ohio 199, and made it their home. At Christmas time, the home is filled with 50 trees and thousands of lights — it takes 45 minutes every evening to turn everything on.
“Before we moved here, I was basically a Grinch,” Doug said. “We would have to argue about even putting up a single Christmas tree.”
There’s just something about the 6,000-square-foot church that swelled Doug’s heart and spirit. It’s become a haven for the Martins’ varied collections and a must-see for groups around the area during the holiday season.
“If we’re going to have this place and decorate it, we might as well share it,” Miriam said. “I believe a major tenet of a Christian lifestyle is that you get over whatever fears and hurts you have and extend hospitality and try to make people’s lives better.”
Miriam said the home is “sort of, kind of” open for tours during the holiday season. She’s a member of the GFCW Women’s Club of Bowling Green and hosted the group earlier this month. A seniors group from Tiffin coming on two buses was set up for this week. Last year, the couple entertained 22 groups.
They thoroughly enjoy the house and Christmastime — no matter the cost.
“We live in all parts of the house. We have three furnaces. It’s very expensive, but it doesn’t have to be,” Miriam said. “For the month of December, we don’t worry about electricity; we don’t worry about the light bill. We hemorrhage money in December. But we love it.”
In January, they’ll only heat the areas they’re working or living in, she said, to save money.
The Martins were happy in their farmhouse. They weren’t thinking about moving, even though they were commuting quite a few miles to work—she’s a teacher in Bowling Green, and he’s a design engineer/technician at Bowling Green State University.
Doug drove by the church almost daily. When he saw the “for sale” sign 14 years ago, he immediately called Miriam and asked her to check it out with him.
“When I was younger, I always thought of living in a non-traditional style house. I had seen people convert barns into houses and things like that,” Doug said. “Not that I ever considered a church before. But after we came here and saw it … we just fell in love with it.”
It came with a lot of “bonus” items. There were rows of pews filling the main sanctuary, and the Martins kept some, gave a few away and sold others. There were 120 place settings, which come in handy for entertaining. The bell still works in the tower. There were also hymnals and Bibles. The Gothic lights still hang from the ceilings in the living areas.
“The sound system was here. How many of you can play Pink Floyd and still hear it over the sweeper?” Miriam asked the women’s club members in her talk to them.
The pews make for some convenient storage. One of Miriam’s collections is old suitcases, which she fills with Christmas decorations and stows under the pews.
When Doug starts bringing in trees the first week of November for decorating, Miriam pulls out a suitcase and starts hanging ornaments.
“He puts the trees up, and I decorate,” she said.
While the main sanctuary is the star attraction of the home, there are tiny rooms that have a pull all their own.
The master bedroom has wood ceilings Doug installed. There’s a tiny bathroom off that bedroom, which is on the same floor as the sanctuary, along with another living area, the former minister’s office, and another small room with a daybed.
The stairs—which were also re-done by Doug with Miriam’s vision of a simple, knotty pine—wind down to a huge kitchen area with an island, modern appliances and seating for more than 20. There’s also a laundry room with a spa shower.
The outside area, which features a tree with 3,000 lights during the holidays, has a barn and ample parking. The Martins also own the lot across the street.
The house is a setting for the Martins’ various collections.
Doug has thousands of pencils and cases. There are also globes perched on shelves that Doug made. He said he’s fascinated with maps.
“I’ve always been a collector ever since I can remember, of something or other,” he said.
Miriam, who has 300 “salt and peppies,” said they enjoy their things.
“We’re not going to collect something that we can’t organize. We’re not going to be buried under it. It’s not going to own us. We’re going to own it,” Miriam said.
Family photos line every wall and most tabletops. Wedding photos of family near (recent marriages) and far (nuptials from 50 years ago) hang on the wall in the small bedroom. They’re interspersed with hand mirrors.
“I don’t really care,” Miriam said of her decorating style. “I think that’s the point to it. I just see it in my head and it feels right.”
That whole room was designed around two paintings of the sea and a lighthouse that were found behind a closet when they moved in. The room also has a shelve of toy bears that belonged to Miriam’s mother, and her mother’s handprint as a 4-month-old, captured in a plaster, hanging on the wall. There are two family quilts in the room, too.
A dozen of “grandpa’s cameras” fill a shelf in the living room. A table with a Scrabble game in place is in the middle of the room.
Miriam said she often decorates with “pieces of people” in mind.
They have also made many memories in the “chouse.” Two of their children have been married there. They love to have family over, pulling out a hide-a-bed couch and mattresses and opening an RV in the yard.
“We’ve had some really good parties here and (people) will just camp out on a pew,” Miriam said.
Every year, Doug makes a new “I Spy” game for children who visit the house, although adults have been known to like it too. Some of the items to look for this year include a movie reel, double globe, nutcracker, tin cup and a red snowflake.
The home has its creature comforts — the Martins do live there.
There’s a sectional couch/recliner in the front of the choir loft, which has a large, flat screen television. The huge kitchen in the basement is fully functional.
“You lose time in here. Because, look, there’s no clear windows,” Miriam said.
The stained-glass windows do change color as the day unfolds. An amber color floods the sanctuary early in the day, then morphs to a moss green as dusk approaches.
The church was constructed in 1903 and remained a church until around 2005.
“For awhile this church and the one in Pemberville, they had one pastor, and they’d meet a month at one, a month at the other. They voted on which building, our understanding to keep, and they kept the one in town,” Miriam said.
When the building ceased to be a church, a man purchased it and held Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the building, Miriam said.
“His dream was that he would turn it into a haven for recovering alcoholics. That didn’t happen, so he sold it,” she said.
The “chouse” does have its challenges.
The foundation needs a lot of patching. A couple of years ago, an extra-long tried to negotiate the turn onto Route 105 and struck the porch, breaking some of the bricks and stonework.
It’s flooded a couple times.
“There’s always just a lot of little things that need to be taken care of all the time,” Doug said.
The couple isn’t bound by any historic regulations.
“The National Register of Historic Places, as a rule, doesn’t recognize churches unless it is a historical significance, unless it was Abraham Lincoln’s church or something like that,” Doug said.
The Martins said they will always have the home open for the holidays.
“Quite frankly, we don’t really do this for just us. It’s just that we have this place and we decorate it — why just keep it all to ourselves?” Doug said. “Hundreds of people come through here every year and it’s just fun to see their reactions.”
“Why wouldn’t we try to give somebody a little happiness?” Miriam said. “And it does give people happiness. They tell us that. It’s a little bit of Santa Claus.”